Caught in a messy model

Clearing up someone else’s mess is never a pleasant job; but for the battalion of pourakarmikas employed either directly or indirectly by the BBMP, it’s a means of livelihood.

Unfortunately for them, in a system characterised by semi-privatisation, a bare minimum of monitoring and rampant corruption, their rights are the first to be compromised. Although they’ve frequently come under criticism for irregular
collection, demanding excess money and remixing segregated waste, very little is said about the terrible condition that these cleaners work in, the odds they have to fight against and the manner in which they are exploited by their employers.

The basis of the problem is the model of employment that the pourakarmikas are currently caught in. While a few thousand of them are employed directly by the BBMP, a majority are hired by private contractors. The BBMP gives a lump sum to individual contractors to handle the disposal of waste in different wards of the City, after which very little is done to follow up on the exact process they employ — thus giving them ample room to cut corners when it comes to the salary and safety of the pourakarmikas. “I’ve spoken to the pourakarmika who collects the trash from my home about this. She says that since they aren’t directly employed by the government, they are subject to the demands of the contractor. They are recruited on a temporary basis and the money that is handed to the contractors doesn’t always reach them — they are paid only what he decides and when he
decides,” says Archana, a professional.

The crux of the problem, feels Bhargavi S Rao from the Environment Support Group, is that there’s no mechanism in place to monitor the terms of their employment.

Generally, these contractors pay the cleaners around half of their salaries and encourage them to collect the remaining amount from the homes they visit. “I live in Padmananagar and the pourakarmika who collects my trash is paid Rs 4,000 by her employer. She supplements her income by collecting Rs 20 from the 200 households that she collects from — something that she has been asked to do,” she explains.

While she continues to give this to her pourakarmika out of goodwill, she adds that it’s actually a violation. “Every household has already paid for this service in its annual tax and cess so technically, it isn’t fair to ask them to pay the cleaners. That is why many households actually refuse to do so. So, many pourakarmikas look for different ways to earn money — for instance, they sell whatever plastic and cardboard they can salvage from the trash they collect to local kabadiwallahs.”

Another compromise that pourakarmikas are subjected to is in terms of safety on the job. After doing the rounds of their wards and collecting the trash from each household, they are then expected to sweep the roads. However, they are generally not given equipment for this job and have to make do with small brooms and no protective wear.

“I’ve noticed that most of them sort through garbage and clean the roads without proper protective clothing, footwear, masks or gloves,” says Manasi, a professional. “Obviously, being exposed to garbage on a continuous basis makes them vulnerable to a host of ailments. The least their employers can do is equip them to deal with their work environment,” she concludes.

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